The winds left hundreds of thousands of people without power, mainly in California, darkening streets and traffic lights as commuters made their way into work.
“It was a terrifying ride for me, coming here in pitch dark ... and watching motorists take no notice of lights being out,” said Bob Spencer, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.
“What the weather experts are telling us are that these probably are the worst windstorms to hit (the area) in more than a decade,” Spencer said, adding that preliminary reports suggest “extensive damage.”
The windstorms come as a large, low-pressure system moved into California. It promises to bring similar, but less ferocious conditions as far away as Wyoming and New Mexico, meteorologists said.
“What’s driving this is a large, cold low-pressure system that’s currently centered over Needles, Calif. The strong winds are wrapping around it,” weather service forecaster Andrew Rorke said.
The National Weather Service issued high wind warnings and advisories for parts of California, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico.
The front will bring blustery weather to Oklahoma, Missouri and Indiana, Rorke said.
In Southern California, high winds blew over at least six semitrailers before dawn on highways below the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County, said California Highway Patrol Officer Mario Lopez.
Northeast of Los Angeles, foothill communities were hard hit as the winds swept down the San Gabriel Mountains. A 97-mph gust was recorded Wednesday night at Whitaker Peak in Los Angeles County.
High gusts Thursday morning topped 60 mph.
Pasadena closed schools and libraries and declared a local emergency, the first since 2004. Fire officials said 40 people were evacuated from an apartment building after a tree collapsed, smashing part of the roof.
Two house fires, possibly caused by downed power lines, critically burned one person, seriously injured three others and forced seven others to flee, fire spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said
Along Huntington Drive, a major, six-lane thoroughfare that carries traffic into downtown Los Angeles, nearly every traffic light was dark across a distance of more than 10 miles, snarling commuter traffic.
Overnight, a falling tree collapsed the canopy of a gas station, but an employee shut off the pumps and no fuel spilled. Another tree toppled onto a car, trapping the driver, who was taken to a hospital.
An estimated 300,000 customers in Southern California were without electricity Thursday morning. About 26,000 customers were without power in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California.
High winds ripped through Utah, overturning several semi-trucks on or near Interstate 15, and 54,000 customers were without power along the state’s 120-mile Wasatch Front as high winds took down power lines.
Police asked schools to close in Centerville, where the weather service reported a 102 mph gust. Mail delivery and trash pickup were cancelled.
On Wednesday, 23 flights were diverted and several delayed at Los Angeles International Airport because of severe crosswinds and debris on runways, officials said. Power was out for an hour at passenger terminals.
The winds had died down by Thursday morning but some delays were reported. Departures to Las Vegas McCarran International Airport were averaging an hour’s delay because of bad weather there.
The winds were colder but fiercer than the Santa Ana winds that often hit California in late fall, but they carried the same ability to dry out brush and push fires into conflagrations.
In northwestern Los Angeles County, sheriff’s deputies rescued two men whose boat capsized in 5-foot swells and gusting winds. They clung to the boat as high winds pushed them to a dam with a 200-foot drop.
They were treated for mild hypothermia, and one man, a former opera singer, was so appreciative that he serenaded the rescuers with “God Bless America.”